The Vicksburg Campaign of 1863 has long been overshadowed by the Union victory at Gettysburg. Although the twin blows against the Confederates landed on the same day, 3 July 1863, the victory at Gettysburg was one of defense. It decisively ended General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, an attempt to influence the impending elections. The victory at Vicksburg, however, was the most successful Union offensive of the war up to that time and the culmination of the Anaconda Plan, severing the Confederacy in two and eliminating the ability of Confederate states west of the Mississippi River to assist their eastern brethren.
The Vicksburg Campaign presages modern amphibious operations in an environment with pervasive coastal defenses aimed at limiting naval access, featuring smaller amphibious raids and maneuvers that contribute to a larger campaign, guerrilla and conventional forces working in concert, and frequent use of deception and feints.
The campaign also demonstrated just how outmatched the Confederates were; at no point in the war would the Confederate armies mount anything matching the complexity of the Union campaign. Although not an amphibious operation as traditionally defined, the Vicksburg Campaign does demonstrate the use of a waterway as maneuver space against an attempt to deny access, in this case to the lower Mississippi River watershed, and the ability of force projection from a waterway to reduce land-based defensive works. The Vicksburg Campaign presages modern amphibious operations in an environment with pervasive coastal defenses aimed at limiting naval access, featuring smaller amphibious raids and maneuvers that contribute to a larger campaign, guerrilla and conventional forces working in concert, and frequent use of deception and feints. The Union’s ability to land troops where Confederate forces were not, maintained the Union initiative and forced Confederates to constantly shift their defensive schemes, eventually revealing weaknesses. Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton was forced to defend everywhere while Union Major General Ulysses S. Grant could concentrate his force where and when he chose; including launching the decisive final phase of the offensive from Confederate territory itself.
The Western theater was always a concern for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, but it never rose in priority above the east. When the massive Union invasion of Virginia in 1862 threatened Richmond itself, the Confederate West slipped further from their reach. Because the best troops usually went to the east, the Confederacy could only fortify key locations in the west, such as Vicksburg, rather than defending everything. In 1862, that allowed Union forces to concentrate on individual points, overwhelm them, then move on to the next. New Orleans, the largest city of the Confederacy, fell in April 1862. Compounding the lack of means were disagreements about the strategy itself in the highest levels of the Confederacy. Secretary of War George Randolph attempted to reorganize the west in defense but he was first countermanded and then relieved of duty by President Davis. In 1863, during the Vicksburg Campaign, there were wide disagreements about Confederate strategy between President Davis, who favored a defensive cordon to deny Union armies entry into the Confederacy itself, and General Lee, who favored an offensive-defense strategy that would necessarily sacrifice territorial integrity to facilitate offensive campaigns into Union territory.
The overarching Union strategy was the Anaconda Plan, brainchild of the aged General Winfield Scott, who had designed and led the campaign that ended the Mexican War. The Anaconda Plan was a mostly naval campaign to cut off the entire Confederacy from the outside world, the western component of which centered on control of the Mississippi River. Achieving that control would not only bisect the Confederacy but would also isolate the most important Confederate states of the deep south from its western territories. By the end of 1862 only a few Confederate coastal holdings still held out and the last major Confederate fort on the Mississippi River, Vicksburg, was in President Lincoln’s crosshairs.
By late 1862, most of the players in the campaign were in place. Confederate Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton was assigned to the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana in October. Pemberton, a Pennsylvania native who had married into a Virginian family, was initially assigned a command in South Carolina, but as a native Northerner he was disliked enough that Confederate President Jefferson Davis sent him to Vicksburg instead. A West Point graduate, an expert in artillery, and a veteran of the Mexican and Seminole Wars, Pemberton was not a poor choice for this command. His Army of the Mississippi was, at various points in the campaign, anywhere from 30,000 to 45,000 soldiers; infantry, cavalry, and artillery but no naval forces. This army did not include local militia and guerrilla forces that were pervasive in the west.
Ulysses S. Grant was also a West Point graduate and Mexican War veteran and appointed to command the District of the Tennessee after rising from the ranks of the Illinois militia earlier in the war. He was already famous for capturing Confederate Fort Donelson earlier in 1862 where his demand of unconditional surrender earned him the nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant.” Between the wars, he had drifted from profession to profession––including farming, real estate, and bill collecting––without any real success. His Army of Tennessee would begin the campaign with around 40,000 soldiers but swell to around 77,000. Grant also had notably competent corps commanders.
Grant’s fellow Ohioans, William Tecumseh Sherman and James B. McPherson were both West Point graduates (Sherman graduated sixth in his class, 1840, McPherson graduated first in his class, 1853) and veteran commanders. They were joined by John McClernand from Illinois, appointed a general without any experience because of his political influence. As we will see, however, McClernand was able to hold his own.
Lastly, Grant’s best advantage was the Union Navy. A river fleet of ironclad steam boats under United States Navy Rear Admiral (acting) David Dixon Porter had been detailed to support Grant. Porter was a career Navy man and his brother by adoption, Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, was then in command of the Gulf Blockade Squadron operating in the Gulf of Mexico. At that time, no Army officer could order a Navy officer of any rank to do anything––wartime or not. It was up to Grant and Porter to work together. Fortunately, each of them respected the other.
Action in the Mississippi River began well before the two army commanders were in place. In the summer of 1862, Union naval forces under Farragut attempted to bomb the Confederate post into submission, but the massive earthworks absorbed the naval gunfire. Success would have to wait for a combined land and naval effort.
What today is generally called hybrid warfare was routine in the American Civil War, as it is in most wars, but the small-scale actions at the fringes of dramatic clashes are too often overshadowed in the historical record.
While the story is best followed through major battles with decisive effects, it is important to remember that there was persistent and pervasive raiding by both sides against the other. Cavalry units, regular and irregular, stalked the lines of communication and weak points of every army. Hundreds of miles of railroad lines, dozens of bridges, and tons of supplies were destroyed by both sides and Confederate forces even mined known avenues of approach. The most successful of the latter efforts was when the Union ironclad the USS Cairo was sunk by two Confederate naval mines. What today is generally called hybrid warfare was routine in the American Civil War, as it is in most wars, but the small-scale actions at the fringes of dramatic clashes are too often overshadowed in the historical record.
Grant’s command expanded by Halleck in October, but he was given no orders. Grant wrote back to Halleck stating this, and proposed that, with reinforcements, he could move on Vicksburg. Receiving no reply, Grant started his campaign in November 1862 anyway. His initial campaign vision called for combined land and river attacks. Grant would personally lead an offensive overland south towards Vicksburg while US Navy Admiral Porter would land four divisions of troops under William Tecumseh Sherman further south. Initially, Grant was successful; his cavalry captured Holly Springs, Mississippi, an important supply depot on 13 November, 1862 only to lose it a little more than a month later to Confederate raiders under Earl van Dorn who destroyed the city under the noses of the Union army.
Meanwhile, Sherman landed his corps in Confederate territory, but was stopped by Confederate entrenchments at Chickasaw Bayou. Confederate defenders were able to rotate in and out of the entrenchments thanks to reinforcements from Vicksburg itself. The repulse, combined with harassment of Grant’s movements on the part of Confederate cavalry leaders Van Dorn and Nathan Bedford Forrest convinced Grant to abandon the offensive.
Although stymied, Union forces were not idle for long. Despite Grant’s disapproval, General McClernand planned an attack at Arkansas Post on the Arkansas River. Forces from the Confederate fort, Fort Hindeman, could harass––but not stop––Union shipping on the Mississippi. From 9 to 11 January 1863, Admiral Porter’s ships landed Sherman’s corps within view of the fort and then bombarded Confederate positions from offshore. Tighter Army/Navy coordination by the Union at Arkansas Post led to the fort’s quick surrender. Although Grant did not specifically order McClernand not to launch the attack and despite the victory, the effort led to tension between the two generals.
After having found that the Confederates could ably defend the difficult terrain of Northern Mississippi, Grant set about changing the terrain. Union forces blew up a levee 400 miles north of Vicksburg flooding the already swampy terrain along the Yazoo River and its tributaries just north of Vicksburg, allowing Union gunboats and transports amphibious access during the spring of 1863. Between February and April, the Navy launched two simultaneous offensives towards Yazoo City, Mississippi, bypassing Confederate strong points. Confederate forces built hasty defenses, but the Union gunboats were unstoppable. Union troops were in more danger from snakes falling from overhanging tree branches than Confederate fire. The flooding was so effective, however, that embarked Union troops found few places to land, although raiding parties were constantly launched from the safety of the ships. Confederate forces were finally able to fortify the approach to Yazoo City enough to prevent any naval advances in April.
Few Union troops at this time were abolitionist, but contact with the realities of Southern slavery did more to change their minds than anti-slavery efforts. Slaves were always the first to suffer when local food supplies began to dwindle, an inevitability due to confiscation of crops by both sides.
Meanwhile, Grant also attempted to re-engineer the Mississippi River itself, ordering attempts to dig canals and thus outmaneuver the anti-access aspect of Vicksburg itself. The work was overseen by Grant’s former chief engineer, Ohioan James B. McPherson, now given command of a corps for the purpose. Troops dredged mud from under eight feet of water for weeks, all while fending off constant Confederate guerrilla attacks and cavalry raids. Although these attacks failed to stop the engineering work, the effort advanced too slowly for Grant’s purposes and he abandoned them.
The Hardening of Union Troops
Months of effort and danger with little to show for it began changing the character of the Union Army in the west. Grant began the campaign with mostly fresh and inexperienced troops but constant guerrilla harassment and contact with Southern society hardened their determination. Few Union troops at this time were abolitionist, but contact with the realities of Southern slavery did more to change their minds than anti-slavery efforts. Slaves were always the first to suffer when local food supplies began to dwindle, an inevitability due to confiscation of crops by both sides. Although many Northerners had no face-to-face experience with slavery, Union forces in the west operating in southern territory embraced the abolitionist ends earlier than did their compatriots in the east. One Union soldier, upon meeting the mixed-blood children of a slaveowner who nevertheless kept his own offspring in bondage, declared, “By God I’ll fight till hell freezes over and then I’ll cut the ice and fight on.” When news arrived that President Lincoln wanted to arm former slaves for the fight, Union forces in the west cheered.
This process did not bode well for civilians in the area around Vicksburg, slaveholders or not. Union soldiers took particular delight in setting plantations ablaze after helping themselves to the contents or allowing former slaves to do so. As the armies of both sides marched and countermarched through Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, many people rich and poor, black and white, became refugees together.
The Final Plan
In April 1863, Grant settled on a far bolder campaign vision that would even draw disagreement from President Lincoln. On 1 April, Grant discussed his plan to march the army forces south on the west bank of the Mississippi, send the navy forces down to run past the Vicksburg guns, link up both forces south of the city, then land them on the eastern shore, taking advantage of higher, drier ground to the south and southeast of Vicksburg to make an approach. Sherman thought the plan too risky, and Porter certainly did not like the idea of running such a gauntlet, but both deferred to Grant. Porter’s main worry was that the decision was irrevocable: once past the guns the Union steam engines were not powerful enough to fight back up against the current and Confederate cannons.
Grant had decided though. McClernand, tasked with the initial move south, built a 70 kilometer long road on the west shore. Meanwhile, three diversionary attacks were launched east of the river: a feint by Sherman north of Vicksburg on the Yazoo River, a long-range cavalry raid in central Mississippi led by General Grierson, and another cavalry raid into Alabama completed the deception. The latter raid forced Pemberton to commit troops that would later be unavailable for the defense of Vicksburg itself. The Alabama raid, under Abel Streight, was mounted on mules to cope with the hilly terrain. Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest forced them to surrender 3 May, but thereby they pulled Pemberton’s most talented cavalry commander and his forces all the way to Georgia.
Confederate troops and southern civilians in Vicksburg itself were confident that Grant’s earlier defeats had finished him. The 16 April 1863 edition of the Vicksburg Whig newspaper went into great detail how Grant’s armada had been virtually destroyed and that, “There is no immediate danger here.” But that night Porter’s main fleet sailed past the Vicksburg defenses while the Confederate officers attended a gala. Despite being camouflaged and running without lights, sentries detected the Union vessels and began firing. The ship the Henry Clay was hit and sunk; its crew rescued by other Union vessels. On 22 April, a supply flotilla carrying 600,000 rations for Union troops also ran the batteries. The civilians contracted to crew the supply vessels refused the attempt, so volunteers from the Army with sailing experience stepped up to man them. Only two of eighteen were sunk.
On 29 April 1863, Grant’s pieces were all in place for the largest American amphibious operation up to that time.
While McClernand created a route south despite pervasive guerrilla attacks, Sherman launched a feint north of Vicksburg to keep Pemberton distracted. Sherman’s corps executed another amphibious landing up the Yazoo River at Hayne’s Bluff from 28-29 April 1863. Pemberton sent 3,000 troops to guard against the feint, setting the stage for main effort.
Operational Maneuver from the Mississippi
On 29 April 1863, Grant’s pieces were all in place for the largest American amphibious operation up to that time. Seven of Admiral Porter’s gunboats opened up on a Confederate fort at Grand Gulf, on the eastern shore, bombarding the Confederate forces with 2,500 rounds for over five hours. While the fire support pinned down the Confederate defenders, Navy transport ships ferried 23,000 Union troops a mile from the east shore to the west. Grant now had a preponderance of force in southern territory and to the rear of Pemberton’s best defensive works.
Grant wasted no time after crossing, moving north and east, deliberately making ambiguous moves to keep Pemberton guessing. The local Confederate commander, John Bowden, was well aware of the landing but not the route of march. His difficulties were compounded by the fact that he had been assigned to hold various positions south of Vicksburg, positions rendered irrelevant by Grant’s landing. Pemberton’s only move was to begin building up troops at Jackson, Mississippi. Amidst the confusion, Grant’s lead elements, from McClernand’s corps, hit Confederate troops holding Port Gibson, an important crossroads, at dawn on 1 May. The Confederates managed to hold for the entire day, thanks to constant reinforcements, but were so outnumbered that the outcome was inevitable. Confederate brigades were continually attacked by Union divisions. The Union victory secured the beachhead, and the Confederate fort at Grand Gulf was finally abandoned.
On 6 and 7 May, Sherman’s corps crossed the Mississippi at the same point, bringing Grant’s strength up to three corps. He continued his forces eastward, with McClernand’s corps on the left, McPherson’s on the right, and Sherman’s in reserve. Near the town of Raymond on 12 May 1863, Confederate forces launched a furious attack rather than waiting in the defense. They succeeded in pinning down some of McPherson’s brigades but rather than fight it out, McPherson and McClernand simply called on other brigades to launch counterattacks. Union numerical superiority allowed Grant’s commanders options that the Confederate forces did not have. The day after the fight at Raymond, two full weeks after Grant’s landing, Pemberton finally led a Confederate force of 23,000 men out to attack him.
By now, even distant Richmond was well aware of the danger. General Joseph E. Johnston was sent west to take charge. He reached Jackson, Mississippi with reinforcements on 13 May, the day after Raymond. Despite the reinforcements, there were only 6,000 Confederate troops in the city. After surveying the defenses, which he found to be inadequate, Johnston ordered a fighting retreat. Although criticized for not attempting to combine with Pemberton’s force of 23,000, Grant was simply too fast for him. On the morning of 14 May, both McPherson’s and Sherman’s corps (backed up by McClernand’s corps now in reserve) hit Jackson simultaneously. Union troops found some entrenchments with stalwart defenders and others completely abandoned.
While there was little hope of keeping three full Union corps out of Jackson and Johnston was probably right to not contest the city, its fall was a blow to the Confederacy. Not only was Jackson the capital of a state, whose government was now in flight, but it was one of the few southern cities with limited industry. Its railroads were also the last supply lines to Vicksburg. Now Union troops destroyed Jackson, introducing the Confederacy to “Sherman neckties.” So many factories and foundries were destroyed that Union troops began calling the city “Chimneyville” because only chimneys survived the fires. The destruction was so complete that Grant did not even bother to hold, instead turning his forces back towards isolated Vicksburg.
Pemberton, still hoping for help from Johnston, did not stop moving towards Grant. Rather, he hoped to find Grant’s supply lines and cut them, as Grant had just done to him. Guessing correctly that Grant would move west along the road from Jackson straight to Vicksburg, Pemberton seized Champion Hill, a ridge that dominated the road. As sound as the attempt was to meet Grant well before he could reach Vicksburg, there was little hope of stopping him. Continual reinforcements brought Grant up to a total strength of 29,000 troops. Confederate forces holding the hill were almost immediately outflanked. A Confederate counterattack retook the hill, but Grant simply called up fresh units to take it back.
Pemberton had one more card to play: stop the Union forces from crossing the Big Black River, a north-south running river just east of Vicksburg along the road. Again, Union numbers were unstoppable. On 17 May, East Tennessee infantry abandoned Confederate entrenchments and set bridges on fire, but the Big Black River was little more than a stream to Grant’s big blue juggernaut.
Even though Grant had been in the Vicksburg vicinity for three weeks, little had been done to shore up the city's actual defenses. Vicksburg’s trench system and artillery redoubts were poorly sited and constructed until after the loss at the Big Black, at which point Pemberton pulled all available forces into the city and frantically began improving its defenses. When the defenses were finished the town of Vicksburg was protected by miles of redoubts, trenches, and forts anchored on natural terrain and protecting avenues of approach, including along the river itself.
To this day, the biggest controversy of the Vicksburg Campaign remains Grant’s decision to launch assaults on the fortifications. From Grant’s point of view, the only way to avoid fighting on two fronts was to storm Vicksburg as soon as possible. Every day Grant waited to assault Confederate lines, the probability of success diminished.
Confederate hopes were not high. Late in the day of 17 May, Pemberton received an order from Johnston to abandon Vicksburg, but President Davis had already ordered it held at all costs. Pemberton surmised, correctly, that Grant had already cut off the only practicable escape route. Sherman’s troops had already reached the Mississippi River to the north, sealing the city in. Meanwhile, Confederate forces had finally located Grant’s supply depots south of the city. Lieutenant General Kirby Smith launched attacks against Grant’s three supply depots, but all three were repulsed and Grant was able to reinforce them while still emplacing the siege. Grant finished closing in on 18 May and assigned Sherman to his right, north of Vicksburg, McClernand as his left, southeast of Vicksburg, and McPherson anchoring the center hinge. Pemberton was hemmed in, but the fortifications were complete. Grant would find no flank to turn at Vicksburg.
To this day, the biggest controversy of the Vicksburg Campaign remains Grant’s decision to launch assaults on the fortifications. As imposing as the fortifications were (and still are), Grant had a few very good reasons for attempting to storm Vicksburg. First, although Vicksburg itself was at his mercy, Grant had to assume that Johnston was preparing a relief offensive from the east. Indeed, both Pemberton and President Davis expected that very move. Confederate reinforcements continually arrived at Jackson; so many that at one point Confederate troops outnumbered the Union troops. Yet, Johnston did nothing and Pemberton could do nothing but hold on. From Grant’s point of view, the only way to avoid fighting on two fronts was to storm Vicksburg as soon as possible. Secondly, Union forces were flush with victory after victory while the Confederates had been harried from one position to another. The disparity in morale, initiative, and momentum would never be better than it was at the very beginning of the siege. Every day Grant waited to assault Confederate lines, the probability of success diminished.
The headlong assault deteriorated into combat of contrivances. Soldiers on both sides took massive risks just for the chance of advances. Union troops reached parapets at many points, but having done so they could do little but throw themselves bodily upon bayonet and abatis, hoping that others would succeed.
In the event, he waited none. On 19 May, Grant launched a general assault all along the line. Sherman’s troops, north of Vicksburg itself, had the most success but interlocking fields of fire for both infantry and artillery proved too difficult to crack. Union and Confederate troops fought for hours at close range, close enough to lob cannonballs at each other by hand. When darkness fell, however, the Union troops withdrew.
Three days later, on 22 May, Grant tried again. This time, he took a more deliberate approach, hashing out a plan with his corps commanders the night before. In the second assault, it was McClernand who almost achieved a breakthrough at two places. Grant reacted to the success by ordering further assaults, especially by Sherman, but communications lag prevented rapid reaction to the successes. The headlong assault deteriorated into combat of contrivances. Soldiers on both sides took massive risks just for the chance of advances. Union troops reached parapets at many points, but having done so they could do little but throw themselves bodily upon bayonet and abatis, hoping that others would succeed. Union casualties were higher for the second assault and they again withdrew when night fell.
The end of the assaults seemed to be a catharsis. At nightfall on 22 May, Union and Confederate troops began visiting with each other across the lines, especially Missourians, as there were Missouri regiments on both sides. While Grant had a variety of good reasons for ordering the direct assaults, such tactics were outdated. Fortifications could still be stormed, but not by sheer weight of numbers. Grant would have had a little reason to believe so. As a young officer, he had seen dozens of Mexican positions fall to direct assaults during the Mexican War. But so had John Pemberton. The thirteen years between the two wars featured enough proliferation of rifled muskets and cannon that tactics had to change. General McClernand, appointed for his connections despite his complete lack of military qualifications, of all people understood what the two career generals did not.
As a young officer, Grant had seen dozens of Mexican positions fall to direct assaults during the Mexican War. But so had John Pemberton. The thirteen years between the two wars featured enough proliferation of rifled muskets and cannon that tactics had to change.
On the night of 21 May 1863 McClernand proposed a tactical scheme for taking the fortifications eerily similar to the infiltration tactics that the Germans would develop in World War I. McClernand wanted to focus troops and firepower at a few key points rather than long general assaults against broad swaths of the Confederate lines. Grant, however, overruled him and his outdated tactics failed again. Given how close McClernand came to cracking Vicksburg wide open, his superior tactical scheme may have made the difference on 22 May.
McClernand’s lack of institutionalized military training may have allowed this creativity, but it was Grant that would go on to greater glory. In late May, McClernand’s congratulatory order to his unit for the successes was published in a newspaper. It was released by McClernand to the press to advertise his own actions; he was a politician after all. The act violated one of Grant’s earlier orders so Grant relieved him for the violation, saying that he should have done so long before. There is little evidence that McClernand was tactically incompetent and plenty of evidence that he was not--instead he was likely the victim of personality. Getting along with three West Point-educated generals, all of whom were from the same state, would have been difficult for anyone.
After May 22, Grant’s forces settled in for a siege. By this point, due to steady reinforcements and on-the-spot recruitment and organization of black troops, Grant had enough manpower to rotate troops in and out of front line duty, allowing them respite that the Confederate defenders lacked. But the siege operations were not static. Union sappers went to work undermining, countermining, and steadily building trenchworks ever closer to Confederate lines. They frequently employed sap rollers--a cylindrical device made from wood and cotton that rolled forward in front of working parties--protecting them from fire. Union troops also built fortifications to their rear and flanks in the event a Confederate relief force arrived.
The sappers also employed gunpowder. On 25 June, Union engineers exploded two tons of gunpowder under the Louisiana Redan portion of the Confederate line. The resulting crater proved too difficult for the assault troops to fight out of before Confederate troops reinforced the line. On 1 July, they tried again, detonating another two tons of gunpowder under fortifications manned by Missourians. The blast itself was more effective but the assault forces again bogged down. The fighting at the second crater continued until the 3 July ceasefire. Failures with undermined blasts at Vicksburg would lead to Grant’s skepticism of the same tactic at Petersburg two years later.
Though having only been in uniform for a matter of weeks, black troops immediately made their mark on the battlefield. While the Confederate fortifications had largely been constructed by forced black labor, and slaves were frequently used for the most dangerous countermining and engineering work rather than Confederate soldiers, whereas black Union soldiers took portions of the line just as any other unit. In fact, Union officers found that the sight of black soldiers so enraged Confederate defenders that they could be induced into wasteful and ill-advised attacks. On 7 June, Confederate troops attacked Milikin’s Bend, an important link in Grant’s supply chain. The attack was defeated by newly raised black units and supporting naval gunfire from the river. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, sent by President Lincoln to observe Grant, noticed that the conspicuous bravery of black soldiers immediately changed the minds of skeptical Union officers.
Inside Vicksburg, soldiers and civilians suffered alike. Mule and muskrat meat quickly became staples and civilians built a tunnel network where they lived to avoid Union shelling. The swampy Mississippi heat surely did not help those trapped inside the city.
In the East, General Lee argued that his second invasion of the North, destined to end at Gettysburg, would draw Union troops away from Vicksburg. It did not. In fact, 8,000 more Union troops were sent west as reinforcements for Grant.
Outside the city, civilians felt the pain of military operations just as much. Mississippi agriculture was in tatters due to looting, foraging, and deliberate destruction on the part of both armies. Confederate guerrilla attacks continued, especially against Union forces holding the Louisiana side of the Mississippi River. In the East, General Lee argued that his second invasion of the North, destined to end at Gettysburg, would draw Union troops away from Vicksburg. It did not. In fact, 8,000 more Union troops were sent west as reinforcements for Grant.
Although the Confederate defenders held against everything Grant threw at them, they could not last forever and Pemberton knew it. As defections rose and food stocks dwindled, Pemberton, with the unanimous consent of his subordinate officers, asked Grant for a ceasefire and a discussion of surrender terms on 3 July 1863. Confederate Major General John Bowen, an acquaintance of Grant, crossed the lines to deliver Pemberton’s request. Hundreds of miles away, Confederate Major General George Pickett was leading his division on their faithful last charge to the Confederacy’s high-water mark at Gettysburg.
On the morning of 4 July, white flags fluttered all along the Confederate earthworks. At 0800, Union troops marched into Vicksburg.
Grant’s initial reaction was a repeat of his terms at Fort Donelson: unconditional surrender. After discussing the issue with his corps commanders, however, Grant realized that the care and feeding of some 30,000 Confederate prisoners was not a task he wanted to take on. Grant’s version of unconditional surrender was more lenient than most, however. The now-prisoners were paroled and allowed to leave provided they agreed not to fight until exchanged for Union prisoners. Officers retained sidearms and, if they had one, a single horse. Pemberton accepted these more lenient terms and on the morning of 4 July, white flags fluttered all along the Confederate earthworks. At 0800, Union troops marched into Vicksburg.
In material terms, the loss of Vicksburg was devastating. Fully 9,901 Confederate soldiers were casualties during the campaign but before the siege. When Pemberton surrendered, another 29,491 troops surrendered with him. Inside Vicksburg were 172 cannon, 38,000 artillery shells, 50,000 rifles, and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. While Pemberton wisely cut rations, he surrendered with plenty of food stocks on hand. What he didn’t have was will.
News of Pemberton’s surrender raced across the south, reaching Richmond simultaneously with the news of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg, on the Fourth of July. Confederate forces at Port Hudson, south of Vicksburg and the last point on the Mississippi controlled by the south, surrendered to Union General Nathaniel Banks, their mission now irrelevant.
Fully 9,901 Confederate soldiers were casualties during the campaign but before the siege. When Pemberton surrendered, another 29,491 troops surrendered with him. Inside Vicksburg were 172 cannon, 38,000 artillery shells, 50,000 rifles, and 600,000 rounds of ammunition. While Pemberton wisely cut rations, he surrendered with plenty of food stocks on hand. What he didn’t have was will.
Grant dealt the Confederacy a blow on physical, mental, and moral levels, swallowing another army, cutting the Confederacy in half, shaking the confidence placed in the “Gibraltar of the West,” and belying the belief that moral fortitude could make up for the South’s deficit in industry and economy. Confederate troops provided Grant his greatest challenge yet, but the entire south paid for it. Grant laid waste to swathes of the south’s agricultural heartland, burned a state capital to the ground, and re-engineered the earth itself just to take Vicksburg. It cost him 10,142 Union soldiers, but the entire Confederacy could not stop the Union now. It could only slow it down.
The Vicksburg Campaign yields a number of lessons for tacticians and strategists. Grant was a talented commander to be sure, but the most important reason for his success was the Union Navy under the able leadership of Admiral Porter. Not just its presence, but the tight coordination between the two allowed one to support the other and vice versa. Land and sea are too intimately connected during amphibious campaigns for the typical supported/supporting relationships to work, there must be symbiosis. The Navy’s role did not end with the establishment of the beachhead, but continued in the form of supplying troops ashore and attacking coastal emplacements. Meanwhile, Union infantry seized and destroyed coastal emplacements from the landward side, contributing to sea (or at least river) control and naval maneuverability. Somehow, years before modern amphibious operations took shape, Grant and Porter mastered it, allowing Grant the ability to move his troops faster, supply them better, and strike the enemy where he was not.
In just seventeen days, Grant mounted the largest American amphibious operation up to that time, marched 130 miles, fought and won five major battles, captured a Confederate state capital and forced the government to flee, and besieged the most important Confederate stronghold. The Vicksburg Campaign, in its very conception, was at least as bold as MacArthur’s Inchon landings 85 years later.
More options is one thing, knowing what to do with them is another. The Union Navy was also at George B. McClelland’s disposal during the peninsula campaign the year before but that effort ended in failure. Grant’s campaign was “maneuverist” in today’s terms: focused on using speed, aggression, maneuver, and deception to paralyze the opponent’s thought processes. He was eminently successful as Pemberton never attacked until he was hopelessly outnumbered and Johnston never attacked at all, even though between the two of them they had Grant between their pincers in hostile territory. Grant could, and did move in confusing and ambiguous directions, concentrating and dispersing his forces at will, striking at the disparate places that Pemberton had to defend with paltry forces. And his speed outpaced even Stonewall Jackson’s famous “Foot Cavalry” in terms of battles won in a short amount of time. In just seventeen days, Grant mounted the largest American amphibious operation up to that time, marched 130 miles, fought and won five major battles, captured a Confederate state capital and forced the government to flee, and besieged the most important Confederate stronghold. The Vicksburg Campaign, in its very conception, was at least as bold as MacArthur’s Inchon landings 85 years later.
Combat engineering, a too often forgotten or pigeon-holed combat capability, was another key to Grant’s success. Sappers performed feats that would be impressive today with tools that we would consider primitive. Even the failures were impressive; Grant’s Canal can still be seen today. Between building roads, throwing up or tearing down bridges, diverting the Mississippi River, completing trenchworks, and digging mines, engineers on both sides were some of the busiest troops during the campaign. Their ideas and tactics were ahead of their times, it was only technical limitations that led to failures. Had the Union engineers not eventually succeeded, however, Grant’s mission and his place in history may have sank forever in Mississippi mud. He was never an engineer, but surely the performance of Union sappers in the Vicksburg Campaign informed his later campaigns in Virginia.
Grant had to contend at every step of the way with guerrilla raids. This is not a historical aberration; the space between most great battles in history is filled with often untold and overshadowed raiding, skirmishing, and irregular fighting. Today’s “hybrid” combat is nothing new and to believe that modern forces will ever fight in a “purely conventional” environment is ahistorical.
Lastly, Grant had to contend at every step of the way with guerrilla raids. This is not a historical aberration; the space between most great battles in history is filled with often untold and overshadowed raiding, skirmishing, and irregular fighting. Today’s “hybrid” combat is nothing new and to believe that modern forces will ever fight in a “purely conventional” environment is ahistorical. Yet, Grant was so successful despite the efforts of guerrillas because he moved fast, hit weak points, and deceived Confederate leaders. In other words, he fought his conventional forces like a guerrilla leader. The Vicksburg Campaign was an early preview of the current convergence of conventional and irregular tactics.
Thus, Vicksburg is an instructive story for modern students of war, navalists, and otherwise. The proliferation of anti-access coastal defense systems are a modern version of the Vicksburg artillery emplacements that controlled the Mississippi. Modern defenses will have to be dismantled in much the same way that Grant defeated Pemberton: relying on landing at, and then attacking enemy weak-points, avoiding detection and deceiving enemy leaders, and employing speed to get in and behind the defense, dislocate it, and then strike it from the land.
Brett A. Friedman is a wargame analyst and officer in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a Featured Contributor for The Strategy Bridge. He's the editor of 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy and the author of On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle.
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Header Image: Federal Naval Operations in the Vicksburg Campaign (CivilWar.org)
 Keegan, John. The American Civil War: A Military History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Pages 205-207.
 Ibid, 84.
 Ibid, 91-93.
 White, Ronald C. American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant. New York: Random House, 2016. 248.
 Ibid, 254.
 Ballard, Michael B. Vicksburg: The Campaign that Opened the Mississippi. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. Page 120.
 White, 240-241.
 Ibid, 243.
 Ibid, 247.
 Ibid, 249.
 Ibid, 251.
 Ballard, 150-153.
 White, 253-254.
 McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Page 587.
 White, 255.
 McPherson, 598.
 Ballard, 161.
 Ibid, 196.
 White, 260.
 Ballard 207, 258.
 McPherson, 626.
 White, 262.
 Ballard, 202.
 White, 264 and Ballard, 215.
 Ibid, 265.
 McPherson, 629.
 White, 273.
 Ballard, 225.
 Ibid, 225-229.
 Ibid, 246.
 Ibid, 254-257.
 Ibid, 259.
 White, 275.
 Ballard, 274-275.
 McPherson, 630.
 White, 277.
 McPherson, 630.
 White, 278.
 Ballard, 322.
 Ibid, 325.
 Ibid, 324.
 Ibid, 390.
 White, 279.
 Ballard, 343.
 Ibid, 348.
 Ibid, 338.
 White, 283.
 Ballard, 358.
 Ibid, 360.
 Ibid, 367-368.
 Ibid, 369-370.
 Ibid, 378.
 Ibid, 391.
 McPherson, 634.
 Ballard, 383-386.
 Ibid, 389.
 Ibid, 392.
 White, 286.
 Ballard, 398-399.
 McPherson, 636-637.
 White, 287.